What's Your Motivation?

If you’re expecting some insights into work/life balance or following your bliss, sorry, I’m not talking about that kind of motivation. In the world of film and video production, motivation simply means having a justification or a reason for why something exists in the world that the viewer is experiencing.

The traditional actor’s question, “What’s my motivation?” has become a bit of a joke, and of course it refers to dramatic motivation. But every component of a video project – including sound, and particularly lighting – should be motivated as well. If an actress has a lovely hair-light, it reads as being a lot more natural and real if there’s some visible motivation – for example, a window – in the frame. Of course, one of the advantages of video is that you can tell a story in multiple shots, so as long as you see a window in one shot, it motivates light in every subsequent shot.

“Behind the scenes” decisions need to be motivated as well. In “The Pelican Brief,” there’s a quiet scene in which Denzel Washington sits on a park bench. In one shot, the White House is visible in the distant background. In a subsequent shot, Denzel is in the same position, but the director and DP have used a much longer lens, so the White House is now much larger, looming over his shoulder. This doesn’t happen by accident. In the context of the scene, Denzel’s character is feeling increasing pressure by the government. Making the White House visually more prominent as the scene progresses is motivated by the story.

The aforementioned example was actually shown to me in films school. At the time, it seemed very unlikely that anyone would put that much thought into a shot. We just zoomed in or out to get what we wanted. In fact, I remember that one of my classmates joked that we “could probably find the same thing in ‘Porky’s.'” But, you know what? We were wrong. Because now, ten years later, I absolutely consider the composition and compression of space in my shots, and I’m sure the director of “The Pelican Brief” did too.

Shot selection and structure should be motivated by as well. Very often, a moving shot – such as Brian DePalma’s lengthy opening move in “Snake Eyes” – is motivated by a character who is walking through an environment. On a deeper level, shots can be motivated by the underlying narrative of the piece. Michael Curtiz, the director of “Casablanca,” liked to start scenes on close-ups, instead of the traditional wide, establishing shot. So, for example, the first time we see the character of Rick in “Casablanca,” we don’t see Humphrey Bogart’s face, we see his hand signing a check, “OK, Rick,” next to a chess board. Curtiz was motivated by a desire to give the viewer information about Rick’s personality, his position of authority, and his name, and he did it all with one shot and no dialogue.

Sound is a little different, because viewers are very used to sound design that is “non-diegetic,” i.e. that is not caused by anything that exists within the story. In the case of a traditional soundtrack, the background music is motivated only by the narrative or emotional content of the scene. Diegetic sound, by contrast, is actually motivated by a device within the story – for example, the scene in “V For Vendetta” in which V and Evey listen to a record of Julie London singing “Cry Me A River” is a perfect use of diegetic sound. The fact that the characters are experiencing the music imbues the scene with a totally different meaning than if it were accompanied by an orchestra that only the viewer can hear.

Viewers are generally very forgiving about mixing diegetic and non-diegetic sound. Certainly the genre of movie musicals – in which characters sing diegetic lyrics to non-diegetic accompaniment – makes no logical sense, but is perfectly understandable to the audience. Indeed, filmmakers often play with the confusion between diegetic and non-diegetic sound for comic effect. For example, in “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (and other action movies) the intense soundtrack of a gun battle is interrupted by elevator music when the main characters spend a few moments in an elevator. That type of gag usually gets a chuckle from the audience. One of the earliest examples of what has now become a bit of a comedy cliché appears in Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety.” Here, the protagonists react with confusion when the soundtrack begins, and begin looking around nervously. In a moment, it is revealed that they are hearing the soundtrack as well, because the music is actually being played by an orchestra in a passing bus.

Whether you’re looking for comic relief or not, the fundamental principle here is that being aware of motivation – regarding all the elements in your project – will make your video more effective and more cinematic. So, instead of making choices based simply instinct or aesthetics, ask yourself whether you’d be able to explain to a skeptical crew member why you want something the way you want it. Why this lens? Why this framing? Why this depth of field? Why this prop? By challenging yourself in this way, you’ll think more about the creative choices you make. And, the more thought out and well-considered your production is, the higher its overall quality will be.

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